Do conservative Republicans still believe in a strong national defense? Or are we all now neo-isolationists and libertarians who slavishly follow the siren songs of Pat Buchanan, Glenn Beck and Ron Paul?
We’re about to find out, because Defense Secretary Robert Gates has issued yet another serious and substantive challenge to those of us who believe in an assertive American foreign policy backed up by the exercise of U.S. military power — including, notably, the deployment of U.S. ground troops overseas.
Gates’ challenge is this: He wants to further “reform” and cut the defense budget. Will conservatives and the GOP stand idly by (as they did last year) and allow this? Or will they substantively fight further defense cuts which promise to limit and constrain American foreign policy?
“Reform,” of course is unobjectionable. Who, after all, wants to spend money on Pentagon bureaucracy and administrative overhead? But the idea that real and significant cost savings can be achieved simply by cutting “fat” and excess from the defense budget is fanciful and illusory. No informed analyst or observer believes this.
Thus “reform” is really a public relations ruse designed to make palatable further cuts in the defense budget. It is, if you will, the proverbial lipstick put on a pig.
And in fact, Gates is quite candid and forthright about what is driving this latest round of “reform.” It is, as he notes, the need to cut the defense budget so that defense spending matches an artificially constrained top-line budget number.
“Given America’s difficult economic circumstances and parlous fiscal condition,” Gates said in a speech on Saturday, “military spending on things large and small can and should expect closer scrutiny. The gusher [of new defense spending] has been turned off and will stay off for a good period of time.”
In one respect, Gates is to be applauded for his purported attempt to impose fiscal discipline on the sprawling Pentagon bureaucracy. Indeed, would that the Secretary of Education and the Secretary of Health and Human Services did the same.
But make no mistake: Gates is the Obama administration’s willing accomplice. He is part and parcel of an administration that is seeking to radically reduce defense spending as a percentage of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) even as it dramatically increases spending on social-welfare programs and entitlements.
Indeed, the “gusher” of defense spending referenced by Gates is, in relative terms, anything but extravagant. Only about 20% of the federal budget, after all, is spent on defense. This translates into little more than four percent of the GDP. And yet, under President Obama, defense spending is projected to decline to less than three percent of the GDP — an historic low at a time of war.
Obama “is cutting the defense budget, both in real dollar terms and as a percent of the economy,” explains Heritage Foundation analyst James J. Carafano. “The average Pentagon budget for the period covering fiscal years 2011 through 2028 will be $50 billion less in real dollars than its current estimate for this fiscal year.”
But what is the first and most important responsibility of the federal government? It’s not to “give” everyone healthcare. It’s not to protect the “right” to abortion. It’s not to “save” the environment. It’s to “provide for the common defense” in an increasingly interdependent and dangerous world.
The Obama-Gates defense budgets, unfortunately, make this constitutionally-prescribed task more difficult. Consider:
(1) Just to maintain America’s current military force structure and personnel, the defense budget must grow at a rate of two to three percent above inflation. Yet, according to Gates, “realistically, it is highly unlikely that we will achieve the real growth rates necessary to sustain the current force structure.”
(2) The Pentagon’s biggest cost drivers are not weapon systems and modernization, but personnel and benefit costs, especially healthcare. Indeed, Gates reports that
healthcare costs are eating the Defense Department alive, rising from $19 billion a decade ago to roughly $50 billion [today. That's equal to] roughly the entire foreign affairs and assistance budget of the State Department.
Yet, there are no proposals on the table to reform, along market-oriented lines, the antiquated, state-run military healthcare system. And, as Gates rightly observes, whenever anyone proposes even a modest increase in premium and copayments, the politicians and the veterans’ lobbies demagogue the issue and it dies.
(3) To payoff the public employees unions, which rank among its greatest and most financially potent supporters, the Obama administration is acting to radically reduce the Pentagon’s use of contractors. The idea is that contracting jobs will be converted into civil service jobs.
Ironically, this is being done in the name of fiscal discipline and cost control. But as both the Heritage Foundation and the Lexington Institute have observed, it is contractors who ultimately save the government money.
After all, contractors come and go, but civil servants last forever. Their pensions and medical costs, for instance, are paid for throughout retirement by the federal government. That’s not the case, though, with contractors. (Full disclosure: I am currently part of a small contracting team that provides niche planning services to a small Pentagon planning office.)
(4) Gates wants to eliminate weapon systems cost overruns. However, the misnamed “Weapon Systems Acquisition Reform Act of 2009″ is the antithesis of reform. It imposes new regulatory straitjackets and bureaucratic decrees on both the government and private-sector industry, thereby stifling innovation and entrepreneurship in an already stultified acquisition system.
Conservative Republicans should accept Gates’ challenge. They should embrace the mantle of reform, but insist on significantly increased defense spending. They should propose a market-oriented restructuring of the antiquated — and increasingly costly — state-run military healthcare system; and they should demand that more money be spent on our ground-forces and ground-force modernization.
None of these real reforms will be easy to advocate for or implement. But if Republicans are to retain their historic edge on matters of defense and national security, then they had better start doing their homework. The Cold War, after all, ended decades ago; yet the GOP seems devoid of any new ideas. Time to wake up and get to work — or else lose big-time politically.